Disclosure: I purchased Age of Wonders III on release and was later invited by Triumph Studios to join the closed testing group to help beta test the Golden Realms expansion. I’ve continued to be a part of the closed testing group for the second expansion and have received one copy each of Golden Realms and Eternal Lords. I was not compensated in any other way for my participation.
Like many 4X fans, I find the entire 4X genre equal parts tantalizing and irritating. The prospect of finding my perfect game, the one that combines all the right doses of what I think I want in just the right mix, is an endlessly intoxicating pursuit. The frustration is that so many games come close but fall short, and we never quite catch that one, into which we can sink our teeth and declare: this is the one!
I always thought I preferred the grandeur of galactic conquest and c-beams glittering in the dark over dragon-slaying and spell-slinging. And so I never expected my game of choice to be a fantasy 4X. But Age of Wonders III proved me wrong. The game struck the right balance between fast-paced and challenging gameplay, strategic planning over detailed empire management, tough and consequential decisions, and a best-in-class tactical combat system.
While AoW III had a solid launch, there were criticisms from the community that many were keen to see addressed. These included:
- Unbalanced and inconsistent maps for random map games
- Lack of depth in empire management
- Underdeveloped systems like alignment, happiness and diplomacy
- Weakish AI on the strategic map (the tactical AI was generally praised)
- Limited differentiation between the races (i.e. “race doesn’t matter!”)
- Grindy endgame with no alternate victory conditions
- A lack of content compared to the previous installments
A series of patches and the Golden Realms expansion made strides towards addressing these issues. The question now is whether the release of the 1.5 patch and the Eternal Lords expansion has laid these criticisms to rest. Is AoW III a standout title not only for people looking for a warfare-centric strategy game but for a much broader audience of 4X gamers? Spoiler alert: I think AoW III has now earned a place in every 4X and strategy gamer’s library, and this sentiment comes from someone initially critical of the game at launch.
Rethinking The Strategic Landscape
One strong aspect of AoW III is the “strategic landscape”. There is a plethora of locations to explore, creatures to do battle with, and terrains to traverse. As a strategy game, the way in which you explore and battle your way across the overworld, level up your forces, and maintain map control is paramount to good play and, thankfully, a highlight of the game. Yet, there is always room for improvement.
Random Map Generator (RMG)
One criticism of AoW III’s otherwise excellent RMG system is that the maps can unfairly benefit or hinder players based on what climates are randomly placed nearby and whether your race will tolerate them. With the 1.5 patch, the RMG has gone through a significant series of refinements to address this concern.
The RMG system now utilizes a clever “racial region” system where each climatic region typically contains cities of the same race and are tolerant of the climate. No more will you start surrounded by large areas of disliked or hated climate (e.g. High Elves surrounded by blight). Additionally, the first few cities you encounter in your starting region are likely to all be the same as your starting race. This addresses another criticism of the game, that “starting race doesn’t matter.” Now starting race matters more as you have to rely on it, often exclusively, in the early game.
Additionally, the terrain generation process now ensures that all starting city locations have the same level of happiness for the starting cities. Consistent happiness is important for balance reasons as the happiness of a city can provide a +50% bonus (or -50% penalty!) to all resources produced by the city. Having this “fair start” eliminated one source of criticism.
All in all, these are good changes, especially where multiplayer balance is concerned. It does normalize the starting conditions from game to game, which can make the opening turns feel a little more scripted. However, I think this is a reasonable price to pay for not being eliminated early on due to a poor starting situation. The Underworld map generation does still need work, but Triumph has said they are looking into further improvements in this area.
A number of strategic movement rates have been tweaked in the 1.5 patch. Naval movement for embarked land units has been decreased, making dedicated ships far more valuable in naval combat. More significantly, flying and floating units have a slight penalty traversing mountains. The penalties aren’t as harsh as for land units, but it tips the strategic emphasis slightly away from flyers and makes them less of a no-brainer choice. It also makes mountains more significant obstacles (or chokepoints!) for everyone and keeps a greater diversity of strategic options on the table.
And one small quality of life improvement is that you can now select opposing armies on the strategic map and see their movement ranges. This is a great UI tweak that makes it easier and faster to plan your movement across the map while also considering possible threats.
Special Sites & Pickups
Pickup sites, where piles of gold, mana, and other resources were left lying around for the taking, were a minor point of criticism. The opening turns of the game were typified by a scouting rush to collect as many goodies as possible. Not only did this feel like a big advantage for the player over the AI, it also meant that players were often flush with extra resources, making bribing independent cities, hiring heroes, or buying units from inns a trivial matter.
With the 1.5 patch, special pickup sites outside of your immediate start area are guarded by neutral forces, so your scouts can’t swoop around the map grabbing all the pickups risk free. Another 1.5 change is that Inns, where you can recruit units, were rebalanced so that higher tier units are delayed from appearing until dozens of turns into the game. This prevents the “Tier 3 Inn Rush” that could sometimes occur in multiplayer games. These tweaks collectively slow down the pace of the early game and keeps resources tighter overall, making choices about how to spend those resources all the more agonizing.
A Tale of Two Play-styles
One of the biggest criticisms of AoW III was that the empire management lacks depth. When I’ve asked people clamoring for more empire management, “What do you really mean?” the answer is often a combination of the following:
- Assigning workers/population to different tasks
- Managing strategic resources
- Complex city development and upkeep costs
- Extensive terraforming
- Setting tax rates and other policies
City and empire management in AoW III is not as complex or detailed as it might be in other 4X games, and this is by design. The series’ focus has always been on warfare and dealing with “external threats.” Hence, there are few “internal pressure” mechanics like growth penalties or diminishing returns, and detailed mechanics like those above are unlikely to be added. Nevertheless, I find that choices of city development can still be quite tough, especially when the player is under tense external pressure and needs to decide between “units now” versus city developments for the future.
That said, the empire management mechanics like the happiness and alignment systems all operate at the “strategic scale” instead of at the city scale. However, it was these systems that drew harsh criticism. The happiness and alignment mechanics felt underdeveloped and inconsequential at launch, and so it was easy to dismiss the game as lacking empire management and depth. Fortunately, over a year of patching and refinement has turned these two systems into a central component of the gameplay.
The Peacekeeper and The Warmonger
Rather than trying to shoehorn new systems into the game, the 1.5 patch re-imagined the happiness and alignment systems into a new concept: the peacekeeper and the warmonger. These two “play-styles” connect with broad changes to alignment modifiers, a new racial happiness mechanic, independent city diplomacy, and how you expand your empire.
The “Peacekeeper” is all about being good to the other races. Being nice gives you a good alignment, and a good alignment increases your relationship with all independent cities and other empires. Having better relationships means you will get quests from independent cities more easily and have lower costs to acquire them. Acquiring independent cities peacefully makes the associated race happier. With the 1.5 patch, a new racial happiness system affects the city happiness of that race, which can give you a big economic boost. With Eternal Lords, racial happiness also gives you racial XP as part of the Racial Governance system, which in turn lets you unlock various perks specific to that race as you level up. Phew!
The “Warmonger” gets to be evil. They grow their empire by attacking independent cities to quickly take them over and migrate in their primary race, becoming increasingly evil in the process. Being evil makes your relationships with others worse, but this is offset by being at liberty to deal with your adversaries however you want since you don’t need to be nice! With the races you attack having lower race happiness, you’re softly incentivized to go more mono-race in order to maximize the happiness and racial XP gains for your primary race(s). With the 1.5 patch, migration now comes with a stiff population penalty, making the choice between migrating versus absorbing more challenging!
This dynamic, which exists at the crossroads of city expansion, diplomatic and independent city relationships, absorb vs. migrate, race happiness, and racial XP, adds an entirely new dimension to the gameplay. Without adding more micromanagement (thankfully), Triumph Studios has added a dose of complexity coupled with a lot more depth. This won’t completely satiate those clamoring for more detailed city management, but it does add to the internal empire management aspects of the game by driving tougher choices in how you fold new cities into your empire.
Oh Vassals, Where Art Thou?
Related to the playstyle changes is the new independent city quest and vassal system, which is a major part of the 1.5 patch. The quest system for independent cities has been rebuilt; and after being at peace with an independent city you will get a quest offer (or buy-out opportunity) to have the city join you as a vassal. Vassal cities provide 75% of their resources to your empire, begin to grow in population, maintain an automatic defensive garrison, and periodically give tributes in the form of units or extra resources. You can even demand tributes from your vassals in times of need, although this will incur a happiness penalty.
The vassal system can also be used late game to reduce micromanagement by reverting cities that you don’t want to control directly back to vassal status. This relieves you of management responsibilities while gaining a free garrison in the process. Vassals also provide a slight boost to racial happiness, further incentivising their use. Of course, you can reassume control of your vassals should the need arise.
Overall, the vassal system kills two birds with one stone: it adds strategic nuance and interest to the game while simultaneously reducing late game management tedium. For gamers who enjoy playing long sessions on large or XL maps, the vassal system is a particularly nice feature and resolves concerns about unwieldy empires in the late game. I also feel that the vassal system is a thematically appropriate way to handle AI city managers, which is a feature of which I am usually very wary but find works well here.
Victory By Any Means
The Age of Wonders series has always been warfare centric, and the tactical combat system, combined with the composition and strategic maneuvering of your forces, is the heart and soul of the game. There is often a decision to be made in 4X game design about how to handle the late-game, particularly when one player is steamrolling their way to victory. Do you try to slow down the steamroller and give other people a chance, or do you design the game to wrap up quickly once it’s obvious who is probably going to win? I have to commend Triumph for sticking to its principles when it comes to the endgame, and they’ve chosen the latter route.
While outright conquest is an option, one can also have successes in bribing the AI to form an alliance, especially late game if you have a lot of resources to burn, and quickly win an allied victory. One of the patches added in a surrender mechanic, where AI-controlled empires that suffered a series of defeats and were obviously outclassed would surrender to you, giving you their throne city but putting all the other cities up for grabs as independents. Assassinating a leader and capturing their throne city is another quick way to close out a game.
Golden Realms and Eternal Lords both added clever “timer based” victories, the former for capturing and holding Seal locations (king-of-the-hill style) and the latter for achieving higher racial governance levels and building Unifier beacons. These victories can put a limit on the length of the game while creating an excellent source of tension and competition among players.
Rubbing Elbows with the Opposition
Of course, all the victories in the world don’t mean anything unless there are suitable opponents to win against. The AI has received a fair amount of attention in the 1.5 patch in terms of the diplomatic, strategic, and tactical combat AI. And new multiplayer systems extend multiplayer opportunities to more players, which is a great way to experience AoW III.
AI leaders now have various personalities that fall on the warmonger-to-peacekeeper spectrum and will inform their actions and whether they tend to be more or less aggressive. It isn’t immediately obvious what the personality is, but the addition of new diplomatic flavor text gives a nice indication of what sort of personality you might be dealing with. The race happiness and relationship system also plays into your diplomatic standings now, which is nice to see.
However, one concern I have is that, if you follow a peacekeeper playstyle, your good alignment buffs your relationship modifier and can tend to homogenize your relationships as a result. In particular, independents and other empires more readily agree to peace. That said, enticing an opposing empire into an alliance is still a challenge, but it is possible with the right bribes and a history of positive relations.
The strategic AI has been improved as well. While previous patches curtailed the worst of rampant AI expansion (city spam, if you will) by increasing settler costs, the 1.5 patch makes the AI far more discerning with city placement. It won’t place cities within a certain distance of other cities (player controlled or otherwise) and where domains would quickly overlap. Likewise, the AI also won’t build as many cities period, particularly when it will result in numerous scattered cities the AI won’t be able to defend.
In terms of force movement, the AI appears to do a better job of keeping its units together, especially when clearing out neutral resource nodes and other sites. On higher difficulty levels, the AI gets a defensive bonus when fighting neutrals to aid in clearing and to keep the AI competitive and at pace with the player. I have been genuinely surprised by some of the moves the AI has pulled off, such as one nasty Rogue AI sending a stack of Shadow Stalkers and Gryphon Riders around the edge of the map and over the ocean to wreck havoc on my lightly defended cities. Shenanigans like this are usually isolated to multiplayer games, so it was great to see the AI being aggressive like that.
There are still the occasional nonsensical moves, where the AI will split up a larger force for no apparent purpose leaving each easily defeatable, but those instances are quite rare in my experience. The AI also doesn’t know what to do with forts (and never builds them), but I suppose the AI’s inherent bonuses on higher levels in part compensate for this deficiency.
The tactical AI has always been strong, but here again I’ve noticed it being noticeably smarter and more capable. The AI now understands and uses special movement abilities like Phasing or the Tigran’s Pounce ability, which can make the AI more challenging. Previously, the AI almost always stormed straight ahead, particularly on defense, allowing you to get in the first attack in most cases. The AI now frequently waits or regroups further away from your forces, requiring you to move in closer first and giving them the initiative and first attack opportunity. This is a welcomed change in behavior, and far more human-like than I expected. Basically, a solid tactical AI got even better.
Multiplayer, for those that are able to swing it, is an amazing way to play AoW III. While the AI is quite accomplished and can be downright brutal if you stack the odds against you, it will never rival the ingenuity of other human players and provide a “fair challenge” to an experienced player.
Live play with simultaneous turns works well for 1v1 matches and cooperative games. Typically, live play uses “auto-combat” when fighting the AI and manual combat when fighting other players, which keeps the game moving quickly. There is a delicious tension when squaring off against a human; and the subtle movements of forces on the strategic map can have huge implications for success and failure. As a long-time table-top miniature gamer, a big 18+ unit vs 18+ unit, human vs human fight is a glorious thing and has been the most fun I’ve had with AoW III, to say nothing of the drama leading up to such fights!
The 1.5 patch adds a much requested Play-By-Email (PBEM) system, that makes multiplayer possible for many people. I haven’t had a chance to use PBEM, although I have used PBEM in other games. The PBEM system uses the classic “you go, I go” turn system and as players are not connected live they can take their time fighting manual battles against the AI. However, when you fight other players, the system uses Auto-Resolve so that you don’t have days worth of PBEM exchanges to resolve a single combat! PBEM is a great way to play big long-maps in a cooperative match against the AI, since players can equally and fully fight the AI at their leisure.
There is a reasonable laundry list of other improvements I’d love to see in the multi-player system, such as a no-combat grace period at the start of each turn or the ability to move multiple armies with one order to avoid stack splitting woes. Supposedly these are on the devs feature list, but we will have to wait and see what transpires. Regardless, multiplayer is a great way to play AoW III and it is good to see Triumph supporting it in as many formats as possible.
Diversity, Variety, and Replayability
An initial criticism of the game was that not only were there only six races, but that the races felt too similar. Fortunately, the overwhelming number of changes in the 1.5 patch are “balance” changes aimed at making the races more distinct from one another, adding more unique racial class units, and opening up more viable strategic options by tweaking class skills and abilities. I find that there are now fascinating and interesting synergies that exist in all the races and give each one their own flair and character.
For example, Draconian Pikemen (the Charger) now gets the “Lesser Flying” ability, which enables them to fly in tactical combat but not the strategic map. Flying dragon pikemen? Yes, please. And these guys can synergize well with the Flyers themselves to make a formidable offensive line. Many Orc units now get a strong Warcry ability that does extra damage on the turn it is activated. Timing your Orc rush around a mass warcry move is challenging and unique to the Orc race, making them feel different from other races. Definitely read through the patch notes, as a ton of the development work and refinement to the game are associated with these balance changes, and all for the better in my opinion.
Quality of Life Improvements
The 1.5 patch ushers in a range of new “quality of life” improvements to the gameplay and user interface that are great changes and deserve special mention. I’ll keep it short in a nice bullet list:
- Revamped leader creation interface with far more information about classes, specializations and Tome of Wonders access.
- You can now sell unwanted items!
- In tactical combat, ranged abilities now show circle indicators on the ground, with dashed circles indicating where damage-falloff starts.
- New hero recruitment interface, allowing you to inspect the hero or even tell them you want someone else, who will show up instead next turn.
- Viewing heroes (other than your leader) in the unit viewer shows them on their mount, so you can capture glorious screenshots of your Cocatrice-riding Goblin Theocrat.
- When you zoom out to the “paper map” the names of cities and dwellings are written on the map.
- Leaders that are killed respawn with their full movement, giving you a moment of opportunity to dash away instead of being trapped in a potentially doomed throne city.
- When you research a casting point upgrade, the upgrade is applied at start of turn so you have your new maximum amount of CP’s for the turn.
- The randomness of the skill book has been adjusted so that there is far less chance of critical low levels spells being skipped over. This is important for certain strategies that might rely on a key low tier spell early game.
- ALL specializations now provide an inherent passive bonus to an aspect of your empire, where previously only some did.
Despite all the improvements, there are still some aspects of the game I would like to see improved. A bit more “empire management” at the strategic level, such as a way to connect forts back to cities, inter-empire trade, or more strategic structures to build in your domain could add a bit of oomph to the gameplay. The challenge is doing this in a way that doesn’t add unnecessary (and unwanted) micromanagement to the game. The UI could also be improved a little to make empire management easier, such as the ability to rearrange build queues without having to clear things out first.
There are some balance tweaks that I think would be beneficial, such as removing the ability to instantly raze forts and watchtowers – a particularly frustrating element in multiplayer games. I do think more could be done with city takeover mechanics. For example, requiring an army to remain in the city for a period of time to “keep the peace” during the absorb and migration process. And of course more improvements to the AI and pacing would always be welcomed. I particularly dislike how well developed the AI’s cities are compared to the players. Not only is the AI not building as many units as they could, when the player takes over an AI city it is often much better developed than your own cities, which gives you a big advantage right away.
I’ve played AoW III for over 400 hours, more than any other game in recent memory. A few factors really stand out to me. First is the variety of choices when setting up the game and designing your leader. Starting a game with no cities and just your leader with a small band of warriors in “adventure” mode is much different than starting with a well-developed city in proximity to multiple empires. The random map settings, scenarios, and campaigns all offer a lot of variety in how the game can be played and customized.
More importantly though, AoW III regularly provides the player with novel and challenging strategic situations. While having a long range plan is important, mechanics like cosmic happenings, the semi-random spellbook, independent city quests, and shifting diplomatic situations keeps the player constantly on their toes and adapting to a dynamic strategic situation. Gaining access to a critical spell or having a hostile global spell slung your way in the late game can really shake up the gameplay as well.
Deciding how to grow your empire through peace or conquest is now a far more nuanced decision. I am regularly challenged to balance the use of my heroes and forces in clearing out treasure sites and leveling up versus maintaining map control over opposing empires while defending my lands. Balancing the use of a precious pool of mana and casting points between summons, global, and combat magic is a challenge every turn when there are so many competing demands. And when the enemy is knocking on your gates, the seemingly simple choices about what to build in a city – buildings or troops – can be nail biting. All of these decision points combine to yield unique strategic situations in every game, and keep me coming back to AoW III again and again.
I was skeptical about Age of Wonders III when it was first released. This skepticism was NOT in regards to the game’s focus on warfare over empire management; I anticipated this given the series’ history. Rather, my skepticism was because a number of gameplay systems just didn’t feel well developed. The alignment and happiness systems in particular felt like placeholders for something yet to come. Fortunately, Triumph Studios kept at it, and the 1.5 patch and Eternal Lords expansion addresses many criticisms of the game in a way that stays true to its design goals.
Systems that previously seemed disconnected and superfluous, like alignment and happiness, now have a strong bearing on gameplay and your strategic decisions. The AI has been improved in a number of critical areas, while the vassal system reduces the tedium of the late game. Players lamenting that the game was “missing” races and content from prior games will hopefully be appeased by the depth and thought put into the new races and the retooling of existing ones. The races now have far more character and flair, which makes replaying the game with different races, classes, and specializations all the more interesting.
Over the past year, AoW III has remained, by far, my most played game. I enjoy the combination of deep strategic movement and tactical combat coupled with “high level” empire management systems. When fighting a war on multiple fronts against an aggressive AI or other humans, there’s a delicious uncertainty about whether you are going to live another turn or not, and this is when the game is at its best. While the game will likely never have detailed city management, between the magic system, race governance, vassals, and expanded victory options, there is plenty to fill the void. When you wrap all of this up in a technically solid and aesthetically gorgeous package, you have a real winner that every 4X gamer should thoroughly examine.
If you are still sitting on the fence, it’s time to climb over. I recommend AoW III for anyone looking for a deep and engaging strategy game.
Oliver played approximately 400+ hours of Age of Wonders III using a MSI GX-640 Laptop with Core i5 430m (2.26 GHz), 4GB RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5850 (1GB DDR5).